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Leena Petersen

Poetics of the Intrinsic.
On Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Allegory

The form of allegory has become a fundamental theme not only in literary studies. In fin de siècle, Walter Benjamin resumed the concept within his intended postdoctoral thesis. In this work, The Origin of the German Mourning Play, he developed a definition of allegory. Within his unfinished text the Arcades Project, he applied the concept within, for example, the elements of architecture, fashion, panorama, painting, modes of lighting, the mirror and the figure of the flâneur (particularly, in the context of his studies of Baudelaire). Within allegory, time and space are introduced as yardsticks in order to perceive as well as to describe the particular time Benjamin wanted to represent. The consideration of time is related both towards the particular understanding of temporal awareness in that very epoch, towards a complex form of mediating history from the present point of view as well as explaining the contemporary. In its complexity, allegorical consideration provides a differentiated consideration as it is characterised above all by its ambiguity. The particular characteristic of allegory consists in its regard towards history as an image - which represents the spatial aspect. That very image is considered as a kind of expressive picture puzzle. As allegory is above all connected with ignored parts of suffering within history and present, and beside that, its images can be defined as somehow mortified, Benjamin describes allegory as a 'death mask of history' - which will be explained later on. Hence, by developing the concept of allegorical consideration, Benjamin intended a new form of culture critique and spatial-temporal historiography in opposition to a purely linear way of consideration. Therefore, he chose allegorical consideration which one could find in literature as well as in other forms of art and academic research as an instrument of interpretation.
Conventionally, one considers space and time as part of sense-perception; hence the senses are often opposed to reason. This distinction raises the question of whether these categories are themselves rationalist concepts and, therefore, whether spatial-temporal perception should be regarded as primarily sensuous. Without asserting the entitlement to solve this issue here, it has to be stated, that the introduction of space and time as yardsticks of reality concerns an area between rationality, imagination and sense-perception. It concerns hence an intrinsic field in which these concepts are correlated.
The Benjamin researcher Howard Caygill explains regarding Benjamin's early method, that time and space are introduced as worldly categories of 'immanent critique'. These are developed in Benjamin's late work into terms of 'strategic critique'[1], to be precise, into allegory and dialectical image as topologies of historical interpretation. Caygill states - and that is important to bear in mind for the following understanding - that Benjamin's examination of the Baroque drama investigates the culture of emerging capitalism while his Arcades Project considers the culture of high capitalism[2].
The art critic Benjamin Buchloh sets forth Benjamin's concept of allegory as follows:

Here, the central quality of allegorical contemplation is seen in its spatial and temporal nature as well as its loss of the utopian sense of historical time. Beside, Buchloh's statement emphasises the fact that Benjamin purely used this very approach of allegorical consideration as an instrument to describe the historical epoch he was working on. Unlike Benjamin's own intention, in Baroque, the idea of political practice happened to be 'receded behind the dominant attitude of melancholic contemplation'. Another conclusion can be drawn from this quotation: the 'almost spatially conceivable experience of time' marks the different meaning of experience. Without examining Benjamin's particular concept of experience in more detail, here, regarding the work of art and allegory, Howard Caygill states that "the difficult relationship between critique and the philosophy of experience […] manifests itself here in the torsion of space, time and the absolute. The exercise of critique indeed extends the concept of experience, pointing to new topologies of space, time and the absolute which are also new ways of being in the world."[4] Hence, this 'new way of being in the world' is characterised by a concentration of physiognomy phenomena.
Accordingly, Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project: "To write history means giving dates their physiognomy."[5] This expression which describes Walter Benjamin's methodological course in one short sentence, underpins the need for the complex system of allegory as a counter-measure towards the totality of the pure symbol.[6] Benjamin describes the allegory rather as close to human existence because of its finiteness. The expressive character of the allegory can be considered as its main feature and as well its attachment to the conventions of its time. Additionally, it is defined as ambiguous in contrast to the symbol: "Whereas in the symbol destruction is idealised and the transfigured face of nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption, in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratia of history as a petrified, primordial landscape."
In Walter Benjamin's method of allegorical consideration, one image, particularly, inhabits the allegorical procedure itself. Within the reception of the writings of Walter Benjamin, the figure of the flâneur has become extremely popular. However, this figure can only be defined according to his own awkwardness in contrast to conventional interpretations: Benjamin mentions the flâneur in one regard with trade and traffic as characteristics of the street, namely as commodity himself: "The flâneur sabotages the traffic. Moreover, he is no buyer. He is merchandise."[7]
According to Benjamin, the imaginativeness of Baudelaire has, by means of an example, its foundation within the melancholic figure of the flâneur. This phenomenon which is transfigured in itself becomes obvious in the way of looking at Paris:
The function of the figure consists, therefore, in its allegorical gaze which would be mainly signified by melancholy. Within The Origin of the German Mourning Play, Walter Benjamin defines the relationship between melancholy and visualisation - mourning and ostentation - among others, as caused by
The mask-like revival of the world of Baroque which has lost its former meaning plays hence an important role for melancholy as, how Benjamin sets forth, "mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it." However, melancholy's 'enigmatic satisfaction' within allegorical contemplation of worldly phenomena concentrates purely on its objects. Benjamin explains this occurrence as follows:
Regarding the flâneur again, the object of that allegorist is, as mentioned before, the city of Paris. On this matter, the arcades are regarded as being something in-between the street and interieur. If one would like to speak of a trick of physiologies, it would be the one proved by feuilleton: namely, to consider the boulevard as interieur. The street comes to be the flâneur's habitation. He is in-between facades at home like the bourgeois within his own four walls. The shining enamelled company's nameplates are as good and better as wall hanging decoration than the oil paintings within a drawing room. Walls would form the desk on which he would rest his notepad. Newsstands would become the flâneur's libraries as well as cafés happen to be the bay windows from which the flâneur would look down after finishing work. The fact that life in all its varieties would initially thrive between grey paving stones as well as the grey background of despotism - that would have become the political ulterior motive of the very literature to which the physiologies belonged to.[12]
The flâneur himself comes to be a commodity within his identity as bohemian:
The indecisive economic attitude corresponds to the political function of the flâneur: initially, the flâneur was at home in the field of professional conspirators; after that, he sought his area of activity in the army and then within the lower middle class, occasionally, even in the proletariat. Whether Baudelaire sympathised with the clerical reactionary development or the rebellion of 1848 - according to Benjamin, Baudelaire's political insight remained to be immediately expressed. In this regard, a popular anecdote enlightens one revolutionary act of Baudelaire in which he was found with a rifle in the streets of Paris, shouting: "Down with General Aupick!" General Aupick happened to be Baudelaire's stepfather.[14]
However, the Communist Manifesto brought the political existence of the bohemian to an end. Though, "Baudelaire's poetry draws its strength from the rebellious pathos of this class. He sides with the asocial. He realizes his only sexual communion with a whore."[15] How deeply rooted the dandy might be in his connection with the "asocial", can be diagnosed by an astonished Baudelaire: "Why don't the poor wear gloves when they beg? They would make a fortune."[16]
The flâneur himself is characterised by indifference according to his state of alienation. However, although he is looking for refuge in the crowd, the flâneur would be better defined as counter-example of throng as "the crowd is the veil through which the familiar city beckons to the flâneur as phantasmagoria".[17] Within the crowd, as a recorded expression of Baudelaire informs only a 'despicable blockhead' would be bored.[18] In this designed world, the department store comes to be a real treasure house of considerations to the flâneur: "There his fantasies were materialized. The flânerie that began as art of the private individual ends today as necessity for the masses."[19] Everything of the artistic existence of Baudelaire revolves around the artificial creation of his staged life. As a result of this, "the whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs"[20], Baudelaire states in L'Art romantique.
Concerning Baudelaire, life and art are connected according to the concept of l'art pour l'art: Baudelaire speaks about modern art as legendary translated form of outward life.[21] That becomes obvious within the performed aestheticising of every day's life: vice versa, the consideration of art has an effect on the way of life which can be categorised as dandyism. The lifestyle which is in accordance with the dandy reflects the art which portrays, in turn, the form of life.
According to Baudelaire, the dandyish nature itself is comparable with a sunset or the decline of the morning star; as a means of identification, it would be full of glory, without heat and full of melancholy - "but alas, the rising tide of democracy … is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride."[22] As indicated by Benjamin, the artificial becomes so much more significant to Baudelaire as "nature […] knows this one luxury: crime. Thus the significance of the artificial."[23]
One can find not only a topography of the city of Paris in Baudelaire's poetry but - and that might decided Benjamin - his poetry shapes a conglomeration of modernity; the "'death-fraught idyll' of the city, however, is a social, a modern substrate. The modern is a principal accent of his poetry"[24]. The "death-fraught idyll" of the city is signified by Benjamin as dialectical and means a historical image. Accordingly, Theodor Adorno wrote in a letter of 1935, describing Benjamin's concept:
The appearance of the arcades might be defined through many elements: one fundamental phenomenon is the perception of the space which is characterised as ambiguous in itself. Benjamin writes:
According to Benjamin, he used the mirror as dialectical image as the mirror enables a reflection of the surrounding through its reproduction of the arcades. The therefore simulated infiniteness of the arcades is extended as a moment of reflection. This constitutes the ambiguity of the world of mirrors of this building as both the pretence as well as its dissolving may dominate the perception of the space. Furthermore, the two-dimensional character of the mirror has to be emphasised: in contrast to a representation in perspective, the mirror just reproduces. Correspondingly, Benjamin quotes a letter of Lahrs of 1837 the identity of whom is unknown:
As a result of its one-dimensional appearance, the extension of the space of the arcades illustrates the power of the architecture which is shown to the visitors of the building. Benjamin describes its effect as follows: "Actually, in the arcades it is not a matter of illuminating the interior space, as in other forms of iron construction, but of damping the exterior space."[28] Consequently, the remarkably character of the mirror is intended to simulate a horizon in which the mythologising of the world of material objects finds its place as well as the focus at the outward appearance of the human figure. The deception makes use of a connection of different spaces caused by reflection: mirrors which are put up on the walls of cafés take their surrounding - for example, the street - into its own space through the reproduction of it. Simultaneously, Benjamin states the connection of visitors of the arcades with commodity offered for sale through the reproduction of a mirror.
Benjamin's essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction was first part of The Arcades Project. The topos of the contemporary reality of the 1930s which is represented in this text states the separation of the human from its own reflection caused by the technology of reproduction in the film. As a result, the flexibility of this fundamental element of economy is stated in which the human is, thereby, set back towards its outward appearance. The human astonishment in front of a camera would be the same as the surprise in front of a mirror by looking at the own appearance. However, as a result of the introduction of new technology, the own appearance has become removable from the own person.
The deceptive character of the mirror implies, consequently, through its widening within the technology of film the result to support the artificial construction of a representative character. The outstanding feature of the representative character consists of broadcasting in huge numbers. Within the regard of public spreading, Benjamin recurrs on the development of fascism: the new media means there the possible broadcasting of a political agitator and, therefore, an extension of his sphere of influence in a legendary way.[29]
In conclusion - regarding Benjamin's method of imagistic allegorical consideration - the question arises, of whether historiography and culture critique are possible without the use of images which inhabit the perception of time and space. Particularly, modernity implied the tendency of the imagistic. Therefore, it has to be examined if a presentation of that very epoch and its effects can be translated into practice by ignoring the establishing elements like the non-conceptual illustration.
According to Benjamin, his method of working emerges out of the realisation that only within the dialectical spatial image a presentation of the past in relation to the contemporary would be convertible:
In the beginning I stated, that the introduction of space and time as yardsticks of reality concerns an area between rationality, imagination and sense-perception. It concerns hence a space in-between in which these concepts are correlated. Therefore, finally, I would like to make Benjamin's speculative approach which is somehow beyond or rather in-between rationality, the focus of discussion, as the consequences of that very form of imagistic critique - like the possible mythical connotation of the image as such - remain an open question to me.


[1] Compare: Howard Caygill: Walter Benjamin.The Colour of Experience, London 1998, p. 34 f. as well as ibidem, p. 61 ff.
[2] Compare: Howard Caygill: Walter Benjamin.The Colour of Experience, London 1998, p. 57
[3] Benjamin H.D.Buchloh: Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art. In Artforum, Volume XXI No.1, September 1982, p. 44
[4] Howard Caygill: Walter Benjamin.The Colour of Experience, London 1998, p. 40
[5] Howard Eiland/Kevin McLaughlin (translators): The Arcades Project.Walter Benjamin.Prepared On the Basis of the German Volume Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge/ Massachusetts and London/England, 1999, p. 476
[6] ibidem, p.42
[7] As a reason for the use of the allegory, Benjamin offers the dialectical characteristic of the allegory in opposition to the one-dimensional symbol. The symbol is defined through its eternal nature and its mythical connotation.
[8] ibidem, p. 458
[9] ibidem, p. 10
[10] Walter Benjamin: The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne, London 1977, p. 140. Baroque melancholy is hence regarded as interdependent through its characteristic concentration on world events and its objects as a reaction to an attitude which is originally facing death. Therefore, melancholy is capable of intensifying itself: "Even from the heritage of the renaissance did this age derive material which could only deepen the contemplative paralysis." In: ibidem, p. 140. Here, within the qualities of Baroque melancholy, one origin of Benjamin's methodological focus on the image is indicated. Later on, materialism will become a methodological foundation for representing the allegorical "image of reality". In ibidem, p. 44ff.
[11] Walter Benjamin: The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne, London 1977, p. 139
[12] Walter Benjamin: The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne, London 1977, p. 139
[13] compare: Walter Benjamin: Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire. In: GS I.2, p. 539
[14] Howard Eiland/Kevin McLaughlin (translators): The Arcades Project.Walter Benjamin.Prepared On the Basis of the German Volume Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge/ Massachusetts and London/England, 1999,, p.10
[15] compare: Walter Benjamin: Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire. In: GS I.2, p. 515
[16] Howard Eiland/Kevin McLaughlin (translators): The Arcades Project.Walter Benjamin.Prepared On the Basis of the German Volume Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge/ Massachusetts and London/England, 1999, p.10
[17] ibidem, p. 235
[18] ibidem, p. 10
[19] compare: Benjamin: Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire. In: GS I.2, p. 539
[20] Howard Eiland/Kevin McLaughlin (translators): The Arcades Project.Walter Benjamin.Prepared On the Basis of the German Volume Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Cambridge/ Massachusetts and London/England, 1999, p. 895
[21] ibidem, p.240. Within this department store of pictures and signs, the key to the emancipation from antiquity would be for Baudelaire allegorical interpretation.

[22] ibidem, p. 239. That human pride could as well be considered as form of self-staging on the foundation of the pure surface or rather the superficial, respectively.
[23] ibidem, p. 240
[24] ibidem, p.10
[25] quotation of Adorno's letter to Benjamin appeared in ibidem, p. 466
[26] ibidem, p. 877f.
[27] ibidem, p. 539
[28] ibidem, p. 539
[29] oncerning the new technologies and its connection with mythology, Benjamin states "only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology. Of course, initially the technologically new seems nothing more than that. […] [However,] by the interest, it takes in technological phenomena, by the curiosity it displays before any sort of invention or machinery, every childhood binds the accomplishments of technology to the old worlds of symbol." ibidem, p. 461
[30] ibidem, p. 462